The Art of MAGTF Warfare

Maj R. Scott Moore

First Place 1988 Chase Prize Essay Contest

Although almost 10 years have passed since William S. Lind and his followers first introduced maneuver warfare to the Marine Corps, the concepts still struggle for acceptance. While some resistance to maneuver warfare may be attributed to the natural reluctance of any military organization to change, much can be blamed on the so-called “maneuverists” themselves. Mr. land’s abrasiveness aside, the advocates of maneuver warfare have done a poor job of explaining their theory. Couching arguments in vague generalities and historical examples recalling the glory of the German Wehrmacht, they have alienated many Marines who must fight the next battle. This shortfall could have tragic consequences, for the concepts of maneuver warfare offer Marines a fresh means of facing the future. Maneuver warfare, by its concentration on tactical excellence rather than numerical superiority, is uniquely suited to the Corps. Unfortunately, the confusion surrounding maneuver warfare has obscured this basic fact.

If maneuver warfare is to be of any value to the Marine Corps, then it must be grafted to the unique missions and requirements of Marines. A Marine adaptation-a version that meets the theoretical and practical needs of Marine airground task forces (MAGTFs)-should emerge. We might call this the art of MAGTF warfare.

Two basic facts beg acceptance if this change is to be accomplished. First, the concepts of maneuver warfare are based on sound historical examples and cannot be discounted by the military professional. Second, although the Marine Corps, like any military force, has made mistakes, it possesses a fine historical combat record that can, at least in part, be attributed to its doctrine. Acceptance of these two facts should bring the conclusion that maneuver warfare and Marine doctrine are not mutually exclusive. With that in mind, synthesizing the best of both into a practical guide for Marines who will fight the next war is but a short step.

Before maneuver warfare can be interwoven with Marine Corps realities, both elements should be reviewed and understood. The basic concepts of maneuver warfare are actually quite simple. Based on retired Air Force Col John Boyd’s observation-orientation-decision-action cycle (the OODA loop), the theory states that the military unit more rapidly able to receive information and turn it into effective action will eventually place its enemy in an untenable situation. In battlefield terms, this can be accomplished through three so-called “filters”-the focus of main effort, surfaces and gaps, and mission-type orders. Without belaboring the already belabored, this translates into seeking out the enemy’s weaknesses, keeping him guessing, and doing both through decentralized control of subordinate units, allowing them to exploit fleeting opportunities. To Marines, this is often equated to gaining and maintaining the initiative. But it is more than that; maneuver warfare is a way of thinking about battle that continually sees it as a contest of wills, not weapons. Rather than outmuscling opponents, in the tradition of the Somme, Iwo Jima, and Khe Sanh, maneuver warfare seeks to outfight opponents more in the manner of Sherman before Atlanta, the German blitzkrieg, and the British in the Falklands.

Central to the theory of maneuver warfare is the concept of the operational art. A rather esoteric concept, the operational art has never been meaningfully defined for Marines. The Army, in FM 100-5, defines it in terms of corps-sized actions, a notion largely ridiculous to the Marine. Yet, the operational art is critical to the Marine’s ability to fight on the battlefield, for it provides direction to his series of small-unit battles. The operational art, then, is the art of using tactical outcomes, successful or not, to achieve a commander’s objectives. While Mr. Lind may speak of it as being the link between tactics and strategy, it is more straightforward than that. For Marines, the operational art is the art of MAGTF warfare, whatever the size of the MAGTF. This concept will be discussed in some detail below; however, Marines must never lose sight of the MAGTF commander’s unique ability to mesh the tactical outcomes of both ground and air battles into a coherent, multidimensional campaign.

As sound as the principles of maneuver warfare may be, they must be tempered by the realities of Marine Corps operations. Strategically, Marines face a rather clearly delineated set of parameters. Short of war against the Russians, a highly unlikely prospect, Marines will be confronted by low- to mid-intensity conflicts. These range from small guerrilla wars to major armored engagements. One aspect, however, will remain constant-They will be fought with existing forces, within a relatively short span of time, and under political restraints. Mobilization, including the draft, will not be authorized. Most importantly, Americans will expect quick results. Casualties without measurable progress will not be tolerated as shown by contrasting American reactions to Grenada and Beirut. Political objectives, expressed in restrictive rules of engagement, will temper military operations. In short, future combat will be fought for limited objectives with limited forces.

The logistical capabilities of the Navy and Air Force further constrain Marine forces. As all Marines are aware, strategic airlift and sealift are severely limited, particularly for amphibious operations. Quite often, these limitations, rather than operational imperatives, drive the task organization of the landing force. Even with the maritime pre-positioning program, Marines need an Air Force commodity that may not always be available, particularly if they must compete with Army forces to get to the battlefield. These strategic and logistical limitations determine the type of battle an expeditionary Marine force will fight. Not only must the Marine be able to achieve decisive results rapidly for strategic and political reasons, he must do it without the forces or the logistics buildup necessary to achieve overwhelming numerical superiority. The Marine must be able to outfight his opponent, be it a mechanized desert army or a jungle-bound insurgency. The extent to which Marines apply the principles of maneuver warfare may well determine their success.

Fortunately, the Marine Corps possesses a doctrinal organization capable of meeting the demands of the future battlefield. The MAGTF meshes theory with reality by fielding a small, expeditionary, self-sufficient, combined arms force that is potentially far more lethal than its limited size might indicate. The truly unique aspect of the MAGTF resides in its aviation combat element (ACE). Marine propaganda aside, the ACE’s true value does not lie in its ability to provide close support to the rifleman. The MAGTF structure enables its commander to designate either a ground or air focus of main effort, greatly expanding his ability to keep an enemy off balance. The MAGTF thus becomes an operational level command, despite its relatively small size, able to fight an integrated air-ground battle by shifting its emphasis between dimensions as the situation dictates. It can exploit enemy gaps quickly, not having to rely on cumbersome inter-Service coordination and successive command layers. This has been at the heart of the Marine Corps’ insistence or retaining control of its air assets during joint operations and will remain so in the future.

To fully exercise the air-ground capabilities of the MAGTF, Marines must understand the importance of the MAGTF command element. For too long, Marines have regarded the MAGTF command element as little more than a collection of coordinators and referees, whose function centered on ensuring that the ground combat element (GCE) and ACE remained in harmony and in deflecting intrusions from outside headquarters. Yet, retention of a rapid decision cycle demands more of the MAGTF command element. Fire support coordination can no longer be the sole responsibility of the GCE. Given modern, long-range weaponry, the threat, and, most important, the role of the ACE, fire support coordination must take place at the level most able to coordinate fires effectively for the entire force. General support artillery, deep air support, long-range naval gunfire, and rear area fires will all occur within the amphibious objective area and cannot be effectively planned or coordinated by the GCE. Additionally, combat units normally associated with the GCE or ACE may be controlled directly by the MAGTF command element. The MAGTF reserve, for example, cannot be encumbered by an intervening command element. The key considerations must be maintaining the ability to rapidly identify weaknesses and then shifting the focus of main effort, air or ground, to exploit them. This can only be accomplished at the MAGTF level.

The role of the MAGTF reserve, alone, justifies an enhanced command element. The reserve provides a commander with the ability to bring decisive power to bear at the critical point. This translates to that point which will unhinge the enemy’s cohesion. Normally, the MAGTF reserve is expressed in terms of the GCE. The assumption is that the reserve will be employed by the GCE in reaction to a GCE requirement. While such a mission is important, it is the function of the GCE reserve, not the MAGTF reserve. The MAGTF reserve must be keyed to the enemy’s critical weakness, be it ground, air, or logistical. The reserve, therefore, should not be solely a ground unit. Like the MAGTF, it must be an integrated combined arms force and may well be composed primarily of aviation units. It may even be employed before, rather than after, the MAGTF fully commits its main forces, should the opponent’s center of gravity be discovered early in the campaign. The MAGTF reserve, like the command element, cannot be solely tied to the GCE’s capabilities or requirements.

MAGTF warfare, however, remains hollow if not adapted to the major subordinate elements. As the ground gaining component, the GCE has been the priority target of maneuver warfare reform, and it would be redundant to recount the precepts established in OH 6-1. Ground Combat Element. Two points should be reiterated, however. First, and most crucial, the GCE is nothing if not a combined arms team. This seems obvious enough, but the term “combined arms” is an abused phrase. Too often, it equates to prep fires followed by an infantry assault, not much different in principle from the Somme. Combined arms imply more than just supporting fires. Properly understood, the term refers to fire and maneuver molded into one element, confronting the enemy with a dilemma. Actions taken to defend against firepower automatically endanger him from maneuver. When the dust clears, the enemy should emerge from his hole confronted by a Marine or, better still, bypassed and useless to the battle. In achieving this, suppression reigns. While destruction of a target may be impressive, its accomplishment not only wastes ammunition, it prevents the maneuver element from approaching its objective before the enemy survivors can recover. Neither can be afforded. Combined arms, more than the mere technical application of supporting fires, must be the foundation of the GCE.

The second MAGTF warfare principle associated with the GCE is the missiontype order, which is neither the exclusive property of the GCE nor well understood. The mission-type order applies equally to the ACE and the combat service support element (CSSE). For all three, it provides a means of battlefield control and integration. The key ingredient resides in the commander’s intent, a clear statement of what the commander intends to do to the enemy. This is critical. Mission-type orders often come encumbered by vague statements proclaiming defeat of the enemy or, worse, seizure of so-called key terrain as the intent. An effective mission-type order clearly delineates what effect the mission should have on the enemy. This enables the subordinate leader to meet the inevitable confusion of combat. If, for example, the objective is to seize a hill, then the intent should tell the unit what effect seizure of the hill will have on the enemy. The subordinate commander may then bypass the hill, should it be heavily defended, and still place his unit in a position to accomplish his mission. The mission-type order thus functions as a control mechanism, obviating many of the oft-used restrictive measures. In drafting a mission-type order, simplicity rules. A concise, standard mission statement followed by “in order to” and an equally concise statement of intent suffices. Mission-type orders offer an uncomplicated glue that binds together the diverse elements of the MAGTF.

While the GCE has slowly adopted these concepts, the same cannot be said for the ACE. This is indeed unfortunate, for the ACE provides the MAGTF with a wide ranging, potentially decisive maneuver element unknown to any other military force of similar size. All that really differs from the GCE is the dimension in which it operates. The ACE, too, can be designated as the focus of main effort or the reserve and may even assume responsibility for a geographic area. To do so, a few cherished beliefs may have to be dispelled. First, the ACE’s primary mission is not direct support of the rifleman. The MAGTF‘s operational mission determines the ACE’s tasks; many of these will not involve flying in close proximity to the forward edge of the battle area. Indeed, quite often flying there will mean suicide. Given the potential threats, to wait until the enemy is engaged with the rifleman may well be too late. Second, support relationships between the ACE and the GCE need not be one way. Elements of the GCE should be prepared to provide direct support or even attach units to the ACE. Finally, aviation tasking need not be centralized to be effective. The cumbersome Marine air command and control system contains the seeds of disaster in its reliance on extensive communications and detailed air tasking procedures. Mission-type orders apply equally to the ACE. Detailed frag orders assigning specific missions to individual aircraft bypass the command prerogatives of squadron and group commanders and often prove slow and inflexible. The ACE as a maneuver element cannot afford to be so hindered.

If the ACE is to be a maneuver element, Marines must reexamine current concepts of air support. While deep air support, interdiction, and air superiority already occupy places in a Marine’s vocabulary, other, less conventional missions present themselves. The ACE may exploit breakthroughs, conduct pursuits, screen flanks, act as the MAGTF reserve, or even control terrain. These missions can only be accomplished by a combined arms team of fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and ground units, particularly infantry, under the ACE commander. The greatest argument against such task organization is the paucity of command and control assets available to the ACE, particularly those for fire support coordination. Yet, this is a superficial detractor. Employment of the ACE as a maneuver element will differ fundamentally from that of the GCE. ACE missions will be short term in nature and conducted over long ranges, usually outside the artillery fan in order to take advantage of aviation capabilities. Infantry will be inserted and extracted quickly, forming a series of ambushes or overwatch positions to fix the enemy, both supporting and supported by attack aviation. Using these tactics, the ACE possesses the necessary command and control assets. The airborne supporting arms coordinator, or SAC(A), linked to forward air controllers and an airborne tactical air controller can effectively coordinate fires. Modern airborne communications suites, the most common being the ASC-26, enable the on-scene commander to maintain control of the battle, a task greatly eased by mission-type orders. The obstacles to employing the ACE as a maneuver element may not be doctrinal or technical; they may be in the minds of Marines.

However impressive the maneuvering of both the GCE and the ACE may be, neither can function without a CSSE that is equally attuned to the style of warfare. Combat service support must anticipate, rather than react to, the needs of the maneuver elements-a concept often called forward-push logistics. Resupply cannot wait for requests from units in contact with the enemy; instead, logisticians must be fully aware of the tactical situation and project requirements. Resupply must occur automatically. Forward-push logistics implies a continual flow from the rear, from the main combat service support area to the combat unit, without detailed request procedures. Plans, both tactical and logistical, must include anticipated expenditures, logistics mobility, and timing. The ACE will play an important role in this planning. Aside from the obvious reliance on heavy helicopter lift, other techniques may be applied. The forward arming and refueling point (FARP) concept already practiced by helicopter and AV-8B squadrons can be equally effective in rearming and refueling fast-moving or dispersed ground units. (See MCG, Feb88, p. 60.) Logistics, automatic and attuned to the battle, must be as rapid and flexible as maneuver.

Perhaps the CSSE’s greatest impact on MAGTF warfare rests in its degree of vulnerability. Throughout military history, logistics bases have been the targets of armies. The 20th century is no different than the 1st in this regard. Unfortunately, this truth seems to be ignored by a Marine Corps that is management and technology oriented. The simple fact is that as Marine weapons systems have improved so, too, their logistics tail has grown, sometimes exponentially. This is particularly true for the ACE. Some growth cannot be avoided; unfortunately, some is self-inflicted. Too often, CSSEs pride themselves on the amount of supplies and equipment they can move ashore and stockpile. That feat places the MAGTF in peril, for it creates the type of weakness the enemy may be seeking to exploit. The ACE and GCE share the guilt. Elaborate tent camps, replete with mess halls, modem conveniences, and garrison-like routines, all erected in the name of troop welfare, may well be offering the MAGTF up for defeat. At the very least, such rear area bases must be defended, a task that siphons combat units away from the main effort and forces the MAGTF commander to concentrate on himself rather than the enemy. Most Vietnam veterans can attest to the vulnerability and drain on combat units engendered by the large cantonments and numerous supply bases scattered throughout the I Corps tactical zone.

Yet, like much of MAGTF warfare, the solution to combat service support vulnerability is relatively simple. Recent emphasis on rear area security helps, but with it must come a fundamental attitude change. Only five requirements should be levied on the logistics system of a MAGTF-food, water, ammunition, fuel, and maintenance. All other amenities constitute luxuries and have no place on the battlefield. This may sound hard, and it is intentionally so, but not nearly so hard as defeat. Maximum use of seabasing, dispersion, austere forward operating bases for the ACE, and mobile-loaded logistics trains with no fixed location offer a partial solution. More fundamental, Marines must realize that combat is inherently an outdoor activity, waged in the field under varying extremes of terrain and weather. To deny that by insisting on indoor substitutes ignores the very nature of war. Keeping Marines warm, dry, and reasonably well rested, therefore, should become a function of training, not tonnage. While the infantryman understands these demands, his brothers in the ACE and CSSE must be equally inured to hardship. In doing so, they will erase a critical MAGTF weakness and begin practicing MAGTF warfare at its most basic level.

MAGTF warfare, in all its dimensions, comprises the operational art for Marines. Drawing on the basic principles of maneuver warfare, it adapts the unique capabilities and requirements of the MAGTF to the realities of the battlefield. In doing so, some long-held precepts may need rethinking, particularly as they relate to aviation and combat service support. The expanded role of the ACE as an integral maneuver element will demand imaginative leaders, both ground and aviation. Combat service support, too often forgotten in the equation, must be as flexible and as invulnerable as the maneuver elements. Binding them together, the MAGTF command element, rooted in the principles of mission-type orders, provides operational level planning and command. What emerges is a compact, agile combined arms team. For Marines who fight the battle, MAGTF warfare offers a means of conceptualizing combat in three dimensions-ground, air, and support. More importantly, the art of MAGTF warfare provides practical solutions to battlefield problems.